Dentists say tests can't determine migrants' age

Spurred by the arrival of young adults from Syria and Afghanistan this week, Conservative UK lawmaker David Davies wants to test whether migrants are children before admitting them. The catch? Clinical tests don't work, experts say.

Peter Nicholls/Reuters
An unaccompanied minor from the Jungle migrant camp in Calais is escorted onto a bus after being processed at an immigration center after his arrival in Britain, in Croydon, south London, on Tuesday.

The arrival in Britain of 14 young migrants from the infamous Calais refugee camp known as The Jungle has sparked suspicion among some British conservatives. The question: Are they really children entitled to special protections as minors or youthful-looking adults seeking to take advantage of British hospitality?

Conservative lawmaker David Davies, member of Parliament for Monmouth, was one of the first to suggest the migrants – young men mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, who were admitted to the Britain to join their families – might actually be adults. “These don’t look like ‘children’ to me. I hope British hospitality is not being abused,” he tweeted after seeing photos of the migrants in the press.

Mr. Davies’s concern that migrants are taking advantage of Britain is widely shared by the British public, sparking interest in clinical tests, like dental X-rays, to determine their age. International child protection laws mean minors get preferential access to wealthy nations. But medical professionals say these tests don't work, and human rights activists are concerned by the practice.

"It's not only an inaccurate method for assessing age, but it is both inappropriate and unethical to take radiographs of people when there is no health benefit for them," a British Dental Association spokesman told the BBC. He described the BDA as “vigorously opposed” to the tests.

Dental X-rays can only approximate age within about 3 years. And the scans will incorrectly determine whether someone is over or under 18 about one-third of the time, Tim Cole, a professor at University College London and one author of a dental scan study, told New Scientist in 2012.

The lead author of that study, Al Aynsley-Green, an emeritus professor of child health at UCL, explained at the time that migrants’ age is “superficially an easy question to ask, but answering it is fraught with difficulties.”

A 2015 study from Belgium looked at DNA methylation, the process by which certain markers are turned on and off as a person ages. Those researchers likewise found that their margin of error was substantial: 3.75 years for blood samples and 4.86 years for teeth. However, they found that error was least in younger individuals, and it may be possible to increase the test’s precision.

In the absence of an accurate clinical test, officials instead must rely on other methods. An obvious first step is to look for papers proving an individual’s age, but those fleeing conflict zones often lack such documentation. Another factor is physical appearance and demeanor, but that is a subjective determinant.

“It is not possible to judge how old someone is by looking at them, and most people understand that teenagers’ appearances vary widely,” said Judith Dennis, policy manager for the Refugee Council, in response to Davies’s appearance-based critique. A 2003 court case in Britain established that age cannot be determined solely on physical appearance, particularly when the individuals in question are in detention centers.

When document and appearance checks prove insufficient, the so-called Merton test kicks in. The test, which requires two trained social workers to sign off on its conclusion, involves interviewing the applicant about their family, educational background, and activities over the past few years. Social workers then deduce whether migrants are children based on the responses.

However, these tests are not seen as comprehensive. In the year ending in March 2016, there were 964 disputes in the Britain over the age of asylum seekers. Of these, 69 percent were later determined to be adults. Critics say that even additional interviews and fingerprint checks, steps the Home Office promised on Wednesday to reassure the British public, do not go far enough.

Even if dental checks were effective gauges of migrants’ ages, some say it would still be a violation of the young people’s human rights. Speaking to BBC’s Radio 4, Ruth Allen, the chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers, said that the tests would be unethical.

“We are talking about young people ... who have often been through incredible amounts of trauma, torture and abuse,” she said. Intrusive medical tests, she went on, would be “retraumatising.”

Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary for the Labour party, described the demand for clinical tests as “outrageous” in view of the bigger picture of Britain's refugee policy.

Under current EU law, Britain and northern European countries are largely insulated from migrant flows. The Dublin Regulation requires that refugees claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive in. Children can have their claim transferred to another country — as these migrants did — if they have family living there.

“This is a vile, reactionary clamour. It distracts from the government’s responsibilities to these refugees, which it has largely neglected to date,” Ms. Abbott went on.

Britain has accepted the claims of 140 children so far this year, the Home Office told the BBC.

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